Monday, 25 January 2016

Making welcome sense of the Scottish 'blog war'

As many observers of the Scottish independence scene will know, a small 'war of words' has broken out on social media between some of its key sites.

Yet, while many will regard this as an unfortunate deterioration of Yes politics, it can be seen, more readily, as a healthy outpouring and illuminating debate.

Readers can get up to speed with the issues and arguments via these pieces:

GA Ponsonby, Newsnet: Battle for the ‘list’ vote: why backing RISE won’t help independence

Stuart Campbell, Wings Over Scotland: AMS for lazy people

Mike Small, Bella Caledonia: Shsh for Indy

James Kelly, Scot Goes Pop: EXCLUSIVE: Read the article on "tactical voting" that Bella Caledonia refused to publish

Mike Small: A reply to James Kelly

James Kelly: Response to Mike Small's Facebook post  

Angela Haggerty, CommonSpace: Why a hectoring online fringe is putting the achievements of the Yes movement at risk

After a short lull, Mike Small has also now restated his case in this Sunday Herald piece: Shouting down those who don't share your narrow vision is about as far from the spirit of the Yes movement as you can get
Small laments an apparent shift from the "joyous chaos" of referendum engagement to a now more censorious party politics and stifling containment:  
What seemed best about the Yes movement's openness, diversity and free thinking now seems to be being corralled into a stupefying dead certainty. An air of negativity hangs over much of the remnant movement.
Valid observation. But the fact that we're having this very debate highlights the still considerable capacity within the broad Yes movement for mature self-examination.   

Hard as it is, amid the hubris and rancour on display here, it helps to distil all these issues and exchanges down to three relatively distinct questions.

1. Should Yes movement people be taking a quiet line with regard to SNP policies and positions - should we be prepared to 'Shsh for Indy'?

Surely not. We shouldn't be keeping quiet or acting passively at this vital point. On the contrary, this should be viewed as a most crucial time for open, constructive and challenging discussion, a new flowering of views. The 'let's get to indy first' argument, advanced by GA Ponsonby and others, is neither practical nor desirable in promoting a still-maturing indy project. The beauty and inspiration of the independence movement is still about real civil participation, not quiescent parties and dormant politics.        
It's also misguided to think this in any way harms the SNP. The key point of such criticism is to encourage more progressive thinking and leftist policy within the SNP as the leading indy party. That, in every sense, is a work in progress, just as independence is a process, not an ending. It's not just about saying it's better to travel than to arrive. It's about living and learning from the journey itself, in better anticipation of what's to come.

One needn't adopt particular defences of the respective sites in these exchanges. There's merit in all the arguments, giving that same vital food for independent thought. Nor should we indulge the 'oh, let's all just stop this divisive spat and concentrate on indy and the real enemy' line. There's a great big valid discussion to be had here, even if it would be enhanced by a serious curtailing of some ugly invective.

As a blog with distinct positions on these matters, Bella are within their rights to pitch their own perspectives, and even to exclude that which conflicts with those core views. Bella editor Mike Small had no obligation, in this regard, to publish James Kelly's response piece. However, Bella can't, at the same time, claim to be some completely open forum. For all his efforts in mediating the Bella case for hosting diverse voices, Mike Small erred in his editorial handling of the proposed Kelly piece for Bella. Either say up-front that you won't publish such material in honest protection of your own space, or publish it without qualification (allowing for reasonable presentation) as part of an agreed format for dialogue. Again, though, this should be treated as part of the same generous learning curve rather than the subject of rival recrimination.

Likewise, while GA Ponsonby and Wings Over Scotland have a similar right to protect their own blogs from questioning commentary, they've chosen to attack Bella and Rise in an over-barbed manner. The impressive James Kelly blog has also resorted to some caustic denunciations of Bella and Rise in the course of his otherwise laudable argument over the problems of tactical voting.

It's a lamentable irony that the very social media we hope to see as a growing and serious alternative to ego-driven corporate media should be acting in such hostile and territorial ways. While the actual debate around all these issues has been energising, any endeavour towards a true alternative media comes with the need for more humble acceptance of one's own 'status' and positioning.

2. Is it desirable to have other left/green indy-promoting parties sharing the Holyrood parliamentary space?

Yes. So long as there's a working SNP majority to spearhead and advance the indy project, there should be nothing to fear from the participation of other left, indy-supporting voices. They/we are a core part of the movement, and were vital in helping to build the '45'. In this regard, Bella are making a legitimate case in promoting Rise as part of that same dynamic politics. Whatever people think about the standing and viability of such parties - Rise, Greens or Solidarity - there's no persuasive evidence that the presence of any other progressive-minded, indy-supporting MSPs would be detrimental to the SNP, the Yes cause or political atmosphere at large. For left-thinking SNP supporters, it should be a welcome enhancement of their own political agenda.

3. On the coming Holyrood election, is voting SNP (constituency) and left/Green (list) a rational tactic or an irrational gamble?

This is by far the hardest question to address. The above two answers favouring fair criticism/encouragement of the SNP, and the case for other left/Green representation, should lead naturally to support for a 'split' vote.  However, both James Kelly and Stuart Campbell have made impressive cases showing that there is, indeed, a substantial element of risk under d'Hondt, or the Additional Member System (AMS) for Scottish elections.

Various exchanges between Kelly and Rise have ensued, with Rise's Craig Paterson outlining the party's case via Bella. Taking-up Stuart Campbell's repeated warnings on the gamble of a 'tactical' vote, further useful debate can be viewed here. Angela Haggerty and James Kelly also engage the issues in good constructive manner in this Bateman Broadcasting podcast.

All that can be said with reasonable certainty is that there is no certain formulation to adopt here.  So, on this particular question, voters will have to think very carefully about their options.

Paul Kavanagh, aka Wee Ginger Dug, resolves his dilemma, to a certain extent, by returning to the case for voting according to conscience and localised factors. I'm broadly with that view. But, in the final analysis, people will have to weigh a number of speculative issues relating to the strength and worthiness of candidates, together with their assessment of how well the SNP are likely to fare at given constituency levels, whether they think this might deliver or threaten a safe enough SNP majority, and whether such numbers call for 'safety first' or offer room for an alternative choice on the list. Hopefully, closer statistical projections will become available as the election approaches, helping to shed further light on how best to proceed. Good luck to voters with all of those deliberations.

But, whatever the difficulties, none of this should be seen as an unwelcome task. Unlike the archaic Westminster system and blatantly undemocratic FPTP, we, at least, have scope here for a more imaginative use of the franchise. Like the need to embrace reasoned criticism and common left-indy participation, any 'calculation' here, however flawed, should be regarded as an educational experience.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Media Lens expose Kuennsberg, Daily Politics and more deep BBC bias

"Nobody with a questioning mind seriously expects impartiality from BBC News."
That may seem an outlandish assertion to many who still cling to the BBC's self-proclaimed values of 'impartiality' and 'objectivity'. But this opening line from the latest Media Lens Alert‘Our Only Fear Was That He Might Pull His Punches’ – BBC Caught Manipulating The News - relates a fundamental truth about the now blatant bias of British state media. 

Media Lens detail how the BBC's chief political editor Laura Kuenssberg, along with producers and other presenters at the Daily Politics show, sought to stage-manage the resignation of a front-bench Labour MP as part of a sustained effort to undermine Jeremy Corbyn and his new left politics. 

It also assesses why an unusually frank BBC blog piece detailing these orchestrations at the Daily Politics was swiftly deleted by BBC managers, and subsequently declared fit only for "internal" purpose. 

Please read and share this timely indictment from Media Lens.      

For a little more evidence of the BBC's particular capacity for institutional denial and lofty dismissal of a questioning public, here's my own complaint, and the BBC's response:
(8 January 2016) 
I wish to complain about the biased conduct of presenters and producers at the Daily Politics in contriving to have Labour MP Stephen Doughty resign on their show over the Corbyn cabinet reshuffle. In particular, I would like the conduct of presenters Andrew Neil and Laura Kuenssberg and producer Andrew Alexander to be investigated. Is it the job of the Daily Politics and BBC to influence the news rather than report the news? Please see the following:
This is a clear breach of BBC guidelines on impartiality. It's also part of a more consistent bias in reports and presentations by Laura Kuenssberg and Andrew Neil against Corbyn.
Also, I would like a specific answer as to why producer Andrew Alexander's BBC blog article relating details of this affair was removed.
John Hilley
The BBC's template reply:
(13 January 2016) 
Dear Mr  Hilley  
Thank you for contacting us about the resignation of Stephen Doughty MP from the front bench of the Labour Party on BBC Two’s ‘Daily Politics’, and a subsequent blog written about the matter on the BBC Academy website.

As you may be aware, the BBC’s editor of Live Political Programmes, Robbie Gibb, has responded to the Labour Party about this matter. We believe Mr Gibb’s response below addresses the number of issues being raised. That said, we have received a wide range of feedback about this subject and are sorry in advance if this reply doesn’t address your specific concerns. Robbie Gibb’s email response to Seumas Milne, Director of Strategy and Communications at the Labour Party, was as follows:

“Dear Mr Milne

Many thanks for your email of the 8th January following the Daily Politics on the 6th January.

I would like to reassure you that we are committed to producing impartial journalism and programme content that treats all political parties fairly. I would like to respond to the specific concerns raised in your email.

Firstly, I reject your suggestion that we orchestrated and stage-managed the resignation of Stephen Doughty. As he himself confirmed on Friday, Mr Doughty had decided to resign his front-bench position on Wednesday morning, before speaking to any journalists. He subsequently spoke to Laura Kuenssberg who asked if he would explain his reasons in an interview on the Daily Politics later that morning. Neither the programme production team, nor Laura, played any part in his decision to resign.

As you know it is a long standing tradition that political programmes on the BBC, along with all other news outlets, seek to break stories. It is true that we seek to make maximum impact with our journalism which is entirely consistent with the BBC's Editorial Guidelines and values.

Your letter suggests that our decision to interview Mr Doughty in the run up to Prime Minister's Questions was designed to "promote a particular political narrative". This is simply not the case. The Daily Politics does not come on air until 11:30am on Wednesdays and the BBC's Political Editor always appears live on the programme in the build up to the start of PMQs. As the confirmation of Mr Doughty’s resignation was Laura Kuenssberg's story, we felt it appropriate for her to introduce the item. Again I do not accept, in anyway, the programme has breached its duty of impartiality and independence.

The programme this week provided a balanced account of the shadow cabinet reshuffle. Lisa Nandy was interviewed at length on Wednesday while Cat Smith discussed the issue in detail the day before.

You also made reference in your email to the deleted blog. It might be helpful for me to explain the background to this. Following the media reaction to Mr Doughty's resignation and appearance on the programme the BBC's training department, the BBC Academy, contacted me asking for an article explaining what goes on behind the scenes when a politician resigns live on air. I had assumed (wrongly) that the article was for internal purposes only. When it became apparent that it had been published more widely, we decided to delete it as the piece was written in a tone that was only suitable for an internal audience. No other inference should be drawn from our decision to delete the blog.

I would just like to finish by underlining our commitment to ensuring our coverage of the Labour Party is fair, accurate and impartial.

I hope we can look forward to working constructively together over the coming months.”

We hope this addresses your concerns, thanks again for taking the time to contact us.

Kind Regards
BBC Complaints
Here, again, we see the BBC in classic damage limitation mode. And, as the Media Lens take-down shows, the Daily Politics manipulations are only part of the BBC's continuing efforts to smear and damage Corbyn - all in the face of mounting approval of his policies and positions among party members.

Of the deleted blog, the BBC say:
When it became apparent that it had been published more widely, we decided to delete it as the piece was written in a tone that was only suitable for an internal audience. No other inference should be drawn from our decision to delete the blog.
'Internal audience' and 'suitable tone'. Doesn't that say it all about the BBC's coveted club, its self-selecting language, and the kind of information it considers appropriate for the 'know your limitations' rest of us?

As intimated in the first line of the Media Lens article, it's likely that increasing numbers of questioning readers will be drawing more specific inferences here: of patronising dismissal and feeble mitigation, of a hasty, embarrassed cover-up, and another damningly exposed claim of BBC impartiality.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

American gun law and the real Wild West

Imagine walking down your street or into your local bar and seeing shoppers, neighbours and random others carrying real live guns in side holsters. The stuff of fanciful Hollywood Westerns? Not if you live in Texas, where, for the first time since 1871, the open wearing of holstered pistols will now be permitted.

The ruling comes as Obama ponders unilateral measures to bring about "common sense gun laws". Reportedly frustrated by his inability to deal with routine mass shootings, Obama:
said he would seek to use his executive powers as president because the US Congress had failed to address the problem. Analysts say there will be a backlash from gun activists and Republicans. But Mr Obama told Americans that he had received too many letters from parents, and teachers, and children, to sit around and do nothing. "We know that we can't stop every act of violence," the president said. "But what if we tried to stop even one? What if Congress did something - anything - to protect our kids from gun violence?"
Images come to mind here of Obama as the impossibly-tasked black Sheriff Bart trying to bring law and order in the comedy Western Blazing Saddles. Incredibly, though, this is America 2016, and its latest 'serious' efforts at gun law, not 1874 and the rollicking fiction of Rock Ridge.

This is a country where the National Rifle Association  - "Freedom's safest place" - and Republican-backed gun lobby still effectively define the law at political gunpoint.

As the NRA load up for another 'right to bear arms' brawl with Obama, it all evokes romanticised notions of saloon bar duels, blazing guns and lawless frontier life.

Yet, as historical research shows, this is "a widely shared misunderstanding of the Wild West":
Frontier towns - places like Tombstone, Deadwood, and Dodge - actually had the most restrictive gun control laws in the nation. In fact, many of those same cities have far less burdensome gun control today then they did back in the 1800s. [...] A visitor arriving in Wichita, Kansas in 1873, the heart of the Wild West era, would have seen signs declaring, "Leave Your Revolvers At Police Headquarters, and Get a Check." [...] When Dodge City residents organized their municipal government, do you know what the very first law they passed was? A gun control law. They declared that "any person or persons found carrying concealed weapons in the city of Dodge or violating the laws of the State shall be dealt with according to law." Many frontier towns, including Tombstone, Arizona - the site of the infamous "Shootout at the OK Corral" - also barred the carrying of guns openly.

Today in Tombstone, you don't even need a permit to carry around a firearm. Gun rights advocates are pushing lawmakers in state after state to do away with nearly all limits on the ability of people to have guns in public.
In response, much of the liberal media are hyping Obama's 'executive intervention' as a 'High Noon' moment. Yet his 'last stance at the Congressional corral' looks more like a fairground shot at improving background checks on gun ownership:
A source familiar with the administration’s efforts said Obama is expected to take executive action next week that would set a “reasonable threshold” for when sellers have to seek a background check [...] Going into his final year in office, Obama said his New Year’s resolution is to move forward on unfinished business.
While a service media report all this as Obama's 'great showdown', and attempt at a 'last hero legacy', there's no discussion of what might constitute any “reasonable threshold” regarding America's own suitability to wield arms, both at home and around the world. There's few serious "background checks" here on what Obama and prior administrations have done in the name of protecting their own or any other townspeople.

As ever, like those matinee Westerns, the propaganda posters keep us straight on the good guys and the bad guys, who gets to do the shooting, who gets to be taken, dead or alive.

While US authorities and media were in a rush to display the recent killings in San Bernardino as another jihadist terror attack, the actions of right wing "sovereign citizens", like the organised militia attack in Oregon, are treated as some wayward resistance to federal government. Rather than terrorist subversion, this was reported as 'gun-bearing invocation of the constitution'. As Bonnie Greer tweeted:
Can we please get 1 Muslim to join the right-wing terrorist militia in Oregon so our media can cover it?
But the problems of citizen guns and enforcement links much deeper into America's culture of violence. The causal connection between guns on US streets and higher US homicide rates, as set against other countries, has been ably mapped. Yet this is rarely viewed in relation to the extensive list of global US militarism, invasion and violence.

While Obama gets to be cast as the exasperated marshal trying to clean up the town, domestic gun culture is a reflection of America's wider self-proclaimed right to wield arms. Founded on Wild West violence against its indigenous people, the US acts as Top Gun and leading sharpshooter in spreading the West's own wild violence around the globe. And, as we see in Syria, Britain and France stand dutifully alongside as deputy marshals, a righteous Western posse enforcing their own violent law and disorder on Muslim lands

Where do we find 'mainstream' reporting or political discussion of US domestic gun violence framed as an issue of American exceptionalism, the state's 'exclusive right' to violence at home and abroad?

Obama has spoken in the past of the need for restrained violence in foreign policy:
"our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please.  Instead [...] our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint."
Yet, America's dark record of mass murder has continued with Obama's own unrestrained killing of foreign others. While he promises to curb gun violence on the streets of US cities, he presides over a drone policy which has seen around 2500 people (January 2015) cut down in streets and villages across the Middle East:
And the covert Obama strikes, the first of which hit Pakistan just three days after his inauguration, have killed almost six times more people and twice as many civilians than those ordered in the Bush years, the data shows.
Though there's nominal reporting of this 'controversial policy', the deep extent of Obama's assassination program has been poorly disseminated to the public. Now, a new whistleblowing source has provided vital insights to The Intercept as part of its Drone Papers series:
The source said he decided to provide these documents to The Intercept because he believes the public has a right to understand the process by which people are placed on kill lists and ultimately assassinated on orders from the highest echelons of the U.S. government. “This outrageous explosion of watchlisting — of monitoring people and racking and stacking them on lists, assigning them numbers, assigning them ‘baseball cards,’ assigning them death sentences without notice, on a worldwide battlefield — it was, from the very first instance, wrong,” the source said.
While Obama weeps for the families of domestic gun victims, the families of those slaughtered by US ordnance in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and other places of American "restraint" have received no such empathy. To the American public, it's all presented as 'proactive security' in preventing 'terrorist Deadwood'. For foreign others, it's Tombstone exported.

As holstered and bolstered Texans walk the' tumbleweed' streets of 1871 again, imagine if the media were to talk about Obama's 'executive interventions' and his call for "common sense gun laws" in these more searching and damning terms.